Friday, December 5, 2008
"Public defenders' offices in at least seven states are refusing to take on new cases or have sued to limit them, citing overwhelming workloads that they say undermine the constitutional right to counsel for the poor. ... But now, in the most open revolt by public defenders in memory, many of the government-appointed lawyers say that state budget cuts and rising caseloads have pushed them to the breaking point. ... Over the last three years, the average number of felony cases [in Dade County, FL] handled by each lawyer in a year has climbed to close to 500, from 367, officials said, and caseloads for lawyers assigned to misdemeanor cases have risen to 2,225, from 1,380. ... The Miami-Dade case, which is being closely watched across the country, was appealed by the state, which says that defender offices must share the burden of falling revenues. On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court sent the case to an appellate court for a ruling. If the judge's decision is upheld, it will force courts here to draw lawyers from a smaller state office and contract with private lawyers to represent defendants, at greater expense. ... 'In my opinion, there should be hundreds of such motions or lawsuits,' said Norman Lefstein, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law and an expert on criminal justice. ... 'I think the quality of public defense around the country is absolutely deteriorating,' Mr. Lefstein said, asserting that unless states spent more on lawyers, the courts would force them to delay trials or, as has happened in a few cases, threaten to drop charges against unrepresented defendants. The most immediate impact of the rushed justice, Mr. Lefstein and Mr. [David] Carroll said, is that innocent defendants may feel pressure to plead guilty or may be wrongfully convicted--which means the real offenders would be left untouched. Appeals claiming inadequate defense are very difficult to win, experts says. ... Here in the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, the defenders' office has had its budget cut by 12.6 percent in the last two years, said the elected chief defender, Bennett H. Brummer, and the workload has climbed 29 percent over the last four years. ... In Kentucky, the state public advocate, Ed Monahan, filed a lawsuit that would allow defenders to turn down cases they cannot ethically handle. ... In New York City, financing from the state and city for criminal defense declined by $2.7 million this year, from a budget of just over $90 million. Meanwhile, the annual number of cases has climbed to 226,000, from 210,000 in 2006", Erik Eckholm at the NYT, 9 November 2008.
The legal system is breaking down. Consider the implications for muni bonds. End the drug war. Now. The majority of criminal arrests are for drug possession or sale. The US can no longer afford the indulgence of arresting, convicting and incarcerating these people. NYC spends $90 million on indigent defense for 226,000 cases, or $398 per case! At say $500 an hour, my estimate of "NY BigLaw" hourly rates, that's 48 minutes per case. Hey Mary Jo White, I love picking on you, how many hours do you spend a year doing pro bono work for defendants at Rikers Island? Another result of indigents being represented by "public pretenders" as they are called, is many prosecutors are never faced with real defense lawyers and have no clue how to present a case. If you've served on a criminal jury, you won't see prosecutors like those on the 1957-66 Perry Mason show. The cases you see are those which haven't been plea bargained. So they come in unprepared. Why not? They couldn't try the case if they'd want to.